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23 Jul 2012

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (concert performance, BBC Proms)

Hearing The Trojans in concert at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Proms was, for me at least, a much happier experience than when it laboured under the crowd-pleasing would-be-musical-comedy served up by David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera.

Hector Berlioz : Les Troyens

Cassandre: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Chorèbe - Fabio Capitanucci; Enée: Bryan Hymel; Didon: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Narbal: Brindley Sherratt; Anna: Hanna Hipp; Ascagne: Barbara Senator; Priam: Robert Lloyd; Hécube: Pamela Helen Stephen; Ghost of Hector: Jihoon Kim; Panthée: Ashley Holland; Hélénus: Ji Hyun Kim; Greek Captain: Lukas Jakobski; Trojan Soldier/Mercure: Daniel Grice; Iopas: Ji-Min Park; First Soldier: Adrian Clarke; Second Soldier: Jeremy White; Hylas: Ed Lyon. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)/Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor).

22nd July 2012, Royal Albert Hall, London.


Speaking to a few members of the audience who had also attended both, I was clearly not the only person to have found conductor and soloists liberated by the concert hall. Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting still has its problems, but he makes Berlioz sound less like Verdi than he does Wagner, and, as at Covent Garden, his reading gathered strength as it went on. Even the first act, where sometimes he appeared to think that he was conducting Aida, had stronger, more idiomatic moments. The very opening was far too fast, breathless rather than jubilant, the Trojans opening ‘Ha! Ha!’ sounding as if they were hyper-ventilating. However, the transformation of mood signalling the arrival of Cassandre was very well handled, doubtless informed by plenty of theatrical experience yet without the encumbrance of inadequate scenic presentation. The disquieting weirdness of the orchestra throughout her recitative and aria painted a thousand words. Likewise, the terrible, ominous tread of the march and choral hymn, ‘Dieux protecteurs de la ville éternelle’ - the irony of the words properly telling - was compellingly presented, far more in touch with the inheritance of Gluck’s obsequies than had previously been the case. It was a pity, then, that the ensuing Wrestlers’ Dance reverted to Verdian type. Cassandre’s aria, ‘Non, je ne verrai pas la deplorable fête’ was conducted as if Pappano had a bus to catch, but thereafter things settled down, off-stage - or rather arena - brass sounding utterly resplendent in the act finale. One might have had quibbles here and there, but save for an unfortunate lapse of tension towards the end of the fourth act - it really must be maintained here, lest the Berlioz nay-sayers have their day in court over alleged ‘longueurs’ - there was much to enjoy, not least a vividly pictorial Royal Hunt and Storm, suffused also with erotic longing.

Of course, those of us who have heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the opera will never forget the experience: a performance far more alert to Berlioz’s formal imperatives, in which never, not once, did the dramatic, Gluckian tensian sag, but sadly, it is not logistically possible for every performance one hears to emanate from the hands of the world’s greatest Berlioz interpreter. The best stomachs, to misquote Voltaire, are not necessarily those that reject all food. Pappano more often than not did a good job, considerably better than at the staged performance I saw. And the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played magnificently throughout, even on the occasions when its direction proved a little misguided.

The major problem with a number of the sung performances remained the level not only of French pronunciation, but French style. The latter is not monolithic of course, and it is no bad thing to have preconceptions challenged, but singing Berlioz as if he were Verdi simply does not pass muster, especially if pronunciation is all over the place. (Incidentally, the lack of comment by many writers on this crucial aspect should really be a matter for concern. If English-language critics simply cannot hear when the French language is being distorted, even butchered, they should probably leave Berlioz well alone.) There was a broad spectrum, of course: two singers who again covered themselves in glory were Ed Lyon as Hylas, his song deceptively simple and touching, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. If there were times when the orchestra threatened to overwhelm the latter’s voice, it never did, and that struggle is surely expressive of the drama. Relieved of McVicarisms, Antonacci channelled all of her musico-dramatic energies into a searing portrayal of the doomed prophetess. Even as a little boy reading the ancient legends, Cassandra was for me a figure of empathy; here, her predicament and nobility of spirit were searingly portrayed in a performance that would have nothing whatsoever to fear from comparison with Davis’s Petra Lang. Ironically, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon, if hardly an epitome of French style, came alive far more dramatically than on stage. There was now a proper sense of a woman scorned, of righteous fury. Bryan Hymel’s Enée, however, continues to lack not only correct, or even feasible, pronunciation, but also refulgence of tone. If only, Jonas Kaufmann had been fit to sing. At times, alas, Hymel sounded like a parody of Jon Vickers Perhaps others can more readily overlook the odd mispronunciations, also a characteristic of Fabio Capitanucci’s Chorèbe, but they surely ought at least to have difficulties with the strangulated tone and the crude, Verdi-like delivery. Vignettes were often well taken. Ji-Min Park’s Iopas was sung beautifully, if one could ignore the lack of ease with the language. And small though the part may be, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Hécube somehow managed blood-curdlingly to capture the attention, as she and others recoiled at the death of Laocoön.

Aside from the second act finale, when the women experienced slight intonational problems, the choral singing was excellent too. Not quite a match, perhaps for Davis’s London Symphony Chorus - is there a chorus anywhere that has sung more Berlioz? - but impressive nevertheless. As an introduction to Berlioz’s extraordinary opera, this could hardly have failed to impress. Even for those of us who have known Les Troyens for a while, it remained an inspiring, if in some respects flawed, experience. Both the Proms and the Royal Opera should be congratulated for their efforts in bringing the work to a wider audience.

Mark Berry

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